TIME Google

Google Dropped a Major Hint About its Next Big Product

FRANCE-TECHNOLOGY-BUSINESS-COMPANY-GOOGLE
Thomas Samson—AFP/Getty Images A Google employee presents a Google Cardboard virtual reality headset for android smartphones during a Google promotion event at the City of Fashion and Design (Cite de la mode et du design) in Paris on November 4, 2014.

New features are coming to Google's virtual reality headset

Google Cardboard, the tech giant’s low-cost virtual reality product, is going to be getting some big upgrades this year — and the new features likely won’t be made of cardboard, according to Gizmodo.

The idea of Google Cardboard, which is literally made of cardboard, is that it can cheaply turn a smartphone into a virtual reality set. The product was announced at last year’s Google [fortune-stock symbol=”GOOG”] I/O event. This year’s event is where Clay Bavor, Google’s product management and user experience chief for Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Apps, says the new features will be announced.

Gizmodo notes that some of the limitations of the original Google Cardboard — for instance, the lack of a head strap and the limited vision field — could be fixed in upcoming versions.

TIME Virtual Reality

The Best Virtual Reality Headset Goes on Sale Early Next Year

Oculus Rift
Oculus VR Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift has put a release date on the commercial version of its device

The long-awaited commercial version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset will begin shipping to customers in the first quarter of 2016, Oculus VR announced Wednesday. The Rift, which has been widely praised for its high level of immersion, has so far only been available in a developer’s version. Oculus will begin accepting pre-orders for the device later this year.

Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion last March in a move both surprising and a sign that virtual reality is one of the next-big ticket bets in Silicon Valley. While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has long-term plans to develop Oculus into a “communication platform,” the Rift for now remains primarily focused on gaming experiences.

“It’s a system designed by a team of extremely passionate gamers, developers, and engineers to reimagine what gaming can be,” Oculus said in a blog post announcing the new shipping window.

Further details about the commercial version of Rift are expected to be announced at E3, an annual California gaming expo set for June 16-18.

Facebook is not the only tech giant investing in VR. Sony has a virtual reality headset called Morpheus in the works for PlayStation 4, while Microsoft is taking a slightly different tack with its augmented-reality headset HoloLens. HTC and Samsung are also working on virtual reality headsets, though the latter’s product is the result of a partnership with Oculus.

TIME Microsoft

Microsoft Just Showed Off the Insanely Weird Future of Computing

The HoloLens can pin Windows directly to your living room wall

Microsoft offered a glimpse of what Windows will look like within the HoloLens, an augmented reality headset that brings familiar Windows apps like Word and Outlook into the physical space around users in a way never before possible.

Project lead Alex Kipman, who unveiled the HoloLens in January, took the stage at Microsoft’s BUILD conference Wednesday to offer a preview of Windows 10 running on the new device. In a mock-up of a living room, a developer wearing the headset pulled up three holographic windows that hung like framed pictures on the wall.

“Instead of digging through menus, everything is right where he wants it,” Kipman said as the developer walked around the space and the windows appeared to adjust to his viewing angle. The developer pulled up new apps by air-tapping a floating start menu.

The demonstration showed off how easily HoloLens wearers can move Windows apps around a physical space. A media player, for instance, could be detached from the wall with one tap. The voice command, “follow me,” made the floating app glide behind the user, ready to be pinned and scaled on another wall.

“Every single universal Windows app has the same capabilities,” said Kipman to the Windows developers gathered in the crowd, an audience that’s crucial to Microsoft’s attempt at re-thinking how computing might work in three dimensions. The HoloLens’ real test will come once the “wow” factor of a floating operating system wears thin and developers begin cooking up new ways to use the device.

At Wednesday’s event, Microsoft revealed two groups of test users, one made up of students and one of architects, are working with the HoloLens team to come up with new uses for the device. The architects have been able to build and share blueprints in three dimensions, scaling up the models to take walking tours through their designs. Case Western Reserve University’s Dr. Mark Griswold, meanwhile, was invited on stage to show how medical students could use the HoloLens in lieu of cadavers. A holographic body could be separated into bones, muscles and arteries, and animations could give students their first look at the inside of a beating heart without using a scalpel.

“This could change how everyone learns,” Griswold said. “Chemistry and genetics, art, engineering, and paleontology.”

TIME technology

See How Virtual Reality Could Be the Future of Photojournalism

The Enemy, a virtual reality experience, puts you in the middle of a face-to-face encounter between combatants of opposing sides

At first, if it weren’t for the contraption that makes you look half-alien, half-astronaut, The Enemy, a virtual reality experience on show at the Tribeca Film Festival, would be akin to most exhibitions.

As you don the awkward oculus rift goggles and the backpack with the umbilical cord that ties you to the operating system, photos taken in the Palestinian Territories appear on opposing sides. As you would when touring a gallery, you approach either wall, focusing your attention on the scene depicted on the first image before moving on to the next. After a few moments, portraits of two adversaries, Abu Khaled, a garrison leader for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Gilad, an IDF soldier, replace the depictions of everyday struggles. The two men don’t stay inanimate for long. At once, they take shape right in front of you, as sophisticated holograms answering questions about violence and peace.

The virtual conversation mirrors the interactions of an actual one. Come in too close to the simulated fighter, and they’ll draw back. Shift left or right and their gaze will follow you. Take a few step back and the volume of their voice weakens. After a few minutes, once the conversation is over, they fade away, leaving you alone in an empty room. At this point, removing the high-tech gear feels like waking up from an exceptionally vivid dream: you keep a distinct memory of the experience, yet are acutely aware that it was not real.

“I wanted to know what would happen if we took the likeness of the combatants I’ve photographed off the wall and breathed life into them,” says Karim Ben Khelifa, the mastermind behind The Enemy, which received funding and support from the Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund. “How would people react? How would the public engage with them? And what impact would it have on their understanding or on how much they care?”

iThe Enemy/i, a virtual reality experience, puts you in the middle of a face-to-face encounter between combatants of opposing sides
Karim Ben KhelifaPhotography consultant Stephen Mayes testing The Enemy

For the better part of the last decade, the Tunisian photographer has dedicated himself to taking portraits of foes, especially those captive to entrenched conflicts, born with the hatred of the other, such as the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities or the India-Kashmir rift. Ben Khelifa sees it as a way to make the viewer – and, hopefully, bitter rivals – see the human being behind the fighter.

“Fundamentally, as journalists, we’ve always been trying to arouse empathy so that viewers will care for a situation happening miles from their home or to others,” he says. “When I began as a photographer, I wanted to work for the most renowned magazines in order to reach the largest audience and touch the most souls. With time, I grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of results.”

It turned out that three images in a newspaper spread were not enough to bring on change. Nor were a dozen shared online. Nor even fifty or sixty bound in a book or displayed as a show. “The challenge is to devise mechanisms that will grab and hold people’s attention long enough for you to tell a complex story,” he says, two years after he had his first virtual reality experience when he joined the MIT’s Open Documentary Lab.

Virtual reality, with its potential to offer a fully engrossing experience, might just be the way, he believes, though it’s not without obstacles. Producing such an elaborate project is exorbitantly costly and requires a wide set of skills. Over 45 people have worked on The Enemy – some of whom were dedicated to rendering exclusively and with utmost accuracy skin, hair or the slightest movement.

“It is essential to make the presence of the combatant feel as genuine as possible,” says Ben Khelifa. “By reacting to the viewer’s behavior, the hologram is acknowledging his presence, which in turn, creates a cognitive reaction of reciprocity. The hologram appears more real.” So much so, that though participants could walk through the simulated fighter, none of them has done so. During a demonstration in Paris, one woman fled when the combatants appeared, unsure of whether they were going to come after her, and another turned away from Abu Khaled. She wanted to hear what he had to say, but staring the masked man in the eyes made her uneasy.

Since starting the project two years ago and basing himself on the reactions of his users, Ben Khelifa has been tweaking and fine tuning the experience, keeping it as simple and intuitive as possible. “The difficulty is that I can’t fully control how everything unfolds,” he says. “Some of it is in the hand of the user who needs to feel some agency. There’s a fine balance that needs to be achieved between directing the viewer and giving him freedom. I could add an endless amount of sensorial experiences, but that could quickly become overwhelming.”

The prototype for The Enemy is currently on view at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Storyscapes programming alongside other interactive experiences. Ben Khelifa hopes that within the next 20 months he will be able to add seven more duos of fighters that will interact with the viewers in different manners. He will also spend that time devising ways to make it more accessible, creating a traveling installation that could welcome more than one person at a time as well as an app version to be experienced at home.

And, he has plans to record with more accuracy the reactions of participants, monitoring their heart rate, keeping track of how close or distant to each combatant they get and noting how attentive they are. “Analyzing people’s responses will give us insights that can help us become more effective storytellers,” he says.

Karim Ben Khelifa is a freelance photojournalist and a visiting scholar at the Open Documentary Lab at MIT in Cambridge. Follow him on Instagram @karimbenkhelifa and Twitter @kbenk. Follow The Enemy on Twitter @theenemyishere.

Laurence Butet-Roch is a freelance writer, photo editor and photographer based in Toronto, Canada. She is a member of the Boreal Collective.

TIME Innovation

Watch This New Virtual Reality Game Turn an Office Into a Robot-Infested Fight for Survival

The secretive Google-backed Magic Leap has released new footage of an augmented reality game

Magic Leap, the secretive company leading Google’s charge into “augmented reality,” has released video footage showing a gamer blasting away at robot invaders as they crash through the walls and drop from the ceiling of an ordinary-looking office space.

It’s unclear whether the video shows an actual game overlaid onto a real-world office space or just an artistic rendering of what the game might look like in the future. The way the gun rests so realistically in the gamer’s hand certainly raises suspicions. Still, a company spokesperson confirmed to Gizmodo that the video was authentic.

“This is a game we’re playing around the office right now,” Magic Leap wrote on its official YouTube account.

It was revealed last year that Google was leading a $542 million funding round for Magic Leap, which has yet to announce any kind of commercial product. However, the footage appears similar to the experience of using Microsoft’s new HoloLens, an augmented reality headset that company unexpectedly unveiled in January.

Read more: Here’s What It’s Like to Use Microsoft’s Amazing New Holographic Headset

TIME Video Games

Terrifying Simulation Shows You What It’s Like to Be Buried Alive

Sounds fun!

Now you can experience being buried alive — for fun.

A new virtual reality game called Taphobos — which comes from the word “taphophobia,” or fear of being buried alive — will be on display this week at EGX Rezzed in London, IGN reports.

One player lies in a coffin wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and a microphone, and tries to direct a second player, who’s also wearing a headset, to find the coffin. The player who’s been “buried alive” uses maps on the inside of the coffin to guide the other player.

“This combination allows you to experience what it would be like if you were buried alive with just a phone call to the outside world,” the Taphobos website said.

Here’s a look at what the game looks like:

[IGN]

Read next: Sony’s Cable TV Killer Is Launching Very Soon

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Video Games

Everybody Is Freaking Out About What Might Happen at 3PM Today

US-IT-CONSUMER ELECTRONICS SHOW-CES
ROBYN BECK—AFP/Getty Images Intel Corp. CEO Brian Krzanich (L) and Gabe Newell, co-founder of game-maker Valve, discuss Intel's role in Valve's gaming development, during Krzanich's keynote address at the 2014 International CES.

Third day of the third month at three pm...

Today may be an auspicious day—if Internet gamers have anything to say about it.

At the annual Game Developer’s conference, legendary game maker Valve is scheduled to talk about its future plans. Earlier, the company announced a new virtual reality headset in partnership with Taiwanese phone giant HTC, the Vive. But the timing of the company’s sessions—the third day of the third month—has some speculating (or at least hopeful) that a sequel to one of its most popular titles might be announced.

The most wished for announcement is likely Half-Life 3, the rumor follow up to 2004’s critically acclaimed and commercially blockbuster Half-Life 2. The title has reportedly been in development for more than a decade. But no one outside the company’s Bellevue, Washington-based headquarters knows for sure. Other possibilities include Portal 3, a sequel to the best-selling 2011 game Portal 2.

Expectations may have already boiled over, though. The company said it would be focusing on hardware this year. And the presentation scheduled is supposed to be focused on the use of physics in game. It isn’t slated to be helmed by Valve boss Gabe Newell. But a nerd can always dream.

TIME Virtual Reality

Here’s How Valve Cracked Virtual Reality’s Biggest Problem

This is shaping up to be the most important year in the tumultuous, not-quite-there-yet history of virtual reality.

A number of companies, from Facebook and Samsung to Google and Microsoft, are making significant pushes into the technology, which has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades but has largely failed to materialize as a viable consumer product. The latest piece of kit, the HTC Vive announced this weekend, is the product of a collaboration between the Taiwanese phone giant and Valve, the purveyor of the most important software distribution platform on the PC, Steam.

Virtual reality, or VR, has a long tortured history. Until three years ago, the technology was more or less moribund. Then Palmer Luckey (now 22), reignited interest with a series of prototypes for a new device called the Oculus Rift, which improved significantly on the old technology by taking advantage of advances in components for phones. His company, Oculus VR, was acquired by Facebook last year for $2 billion.

Most of Oculus’ advances, which are now being adopted or emulated by the likes of Sony and Samsung, are in how images are displayed to users wearing the headset. Long story short, a VR system has to display two sets of images—one for each eye—at very fast rates or the viewer will get nauseous.

But the HTC Vive, which the companies say will be available later this year, solves the next most vexing problems: once a viewer is seeing 3D space, how do they maneuver and manipulate the environment around them. Aside from content that is compatible with VR, these are the biggest outstanding questions. Once you’re there, what can you do and how do you do it?

Early development kits for the Oculus employ a standard console controller to move around, but that can be disorienting. Sony’s Morpheus prototype for the Playstation4 uses a set of controllers that look like ice cream cones with lightbulbs on top with similar results. And Microsoft’s recently unveiled HoloLens, which projects images onto the real world, uses hand gestures and arm motions. It’s still unclear which approach will win out.

HTC says its system will come with a base station that can track a user’s movements in 3D space. The company also hinted at a specific controller, perhaps a set of gloves, to enable users to manipulate virtual objects. Details are still scant, but this could solve the problems of mobility in a simulated 3D environment.

If Valve and HTC have indeed managed to do that, virtual reality may finally be ready for prime time.

TIME Gadgets

We Finally Know Who’s Making Valve’s Virtual-Reality Headset

The HTC Vive should be out by the end of the year

Gaming company Valve dropped the news last week that it’s working on a virtual-reality platform akin to the Oculus Rift, but it wasn’t clear who was making the system’s hardware. Now we know: HTC on Sunday announced the HTC Vive, a joint HTC-Valve virtual-reality headset that’s due out by the end of the year.

HTC says the Vive has the “most immersive experience of any VR package,” thanks to a full 360-degree field of vision and 90-frame-per-second video capabilities. The company is also working on wireless controllers for the headset, which, given the Valve partnership, will probably be marketed primarily as a gaming device—games like shooters are a natural fit for the VR experience, and the Vive will be compatible with Valve’s SteamVR virtual-reality platform.

Still, games won’t be the only offering on HTC and Valve’s Vive headset. HTC is partnering with several content providers, including HBO, Lionsgate and Google, for other virtual-reality content like movies.

It still isn’t clear how much the HTC Vive will cost or what content will be available on the platform upon launch. A developer’s edition is due out this spring.

TIME Gadgets

Apple Granted Patent for Virtual Reality Headset

Samsung Electronics Co. Launches The Galaxy Note 4 Smartphone, Gear S Smartwatch And Gear Virtual-Reality Headset
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images A visitor tries out a Samsung Electronics Co. Galaxy Gear Virtual-Reality (VR) headset, jointly developed by Samsung and Oculus VR Inc., at Samsung's flagship store in Seoul, South Korea, Sept. 24, 2014.

Headset would use iPhone as a display

Apple may be experimenting in the virtual reality space. The company has been granted a patent for a head-mounted virtual reality device that would use the iPhone screen as the display. Apple first applied for the patent back in 2008, meaning VR has been on the company’s mind for a while.

The functionality of the product in the Apple patent seems to have the most in common with the Samsung Gear VR, a headset Samsung developed in conjunction with Oculus that uses the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 phablet as a display. These devices are a bit more complex than Google’s current solution, which slots a smartphone into a headset made out of cardboard.

Apple’s patent also calls for a separate remote control that would be able to manipulate the headset in some way.

Virtual reality isn’t the only new mode of interaction Apple is exploring. The tech giant had a patent granted for a “3D user interface” for computers earlier this year. Still, Apple being granted a patent doesn’t mean an actual product is in the pipeline.

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